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ISRAEL: Prime Minister Netanyahu's secret trip to...where?

September 9, 2009 |  7:33 pm

So, where was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week?

Standing up journalists and canceling other appointments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disappeared from the press' radar for about 14 hours Monday, sparking a brush-fire of rumors.

Persistent queries and theories produced the first version of the explanation that evening. The prime minister spent the day visiting a "security installation" in central Israel, where meetings had run longer than expected, said a statement, curiously issued by his military secretary, Gen.  Meir Kalifi, and not his usual news media advisers. That's one long meeting. You can drive from the border with Lebanon to the border with Egypt and back twice in that time.

The next day a Palestinian newspaper chimed in, reporting that he had visited an Arab country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and that he had taken Kalifi and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad with him. The agenda was said to be Iran.

This was one step closer. Kalifi and Arad evidently did join the magical mystery tour -- but to a different destination. Wednesday, Israeli news reports said that Netanyahu had made a flash visit to Russia. Yes, he had visited a security installation, but proceeded from there to the airport, where he had leased a private plane from an Israeli tycoon to avoid attention and flew to Russia with Kalifi, Arad, a select security detail --  and according to one report, another senior person. The lot of them returned at 3 a.m. 


A senior official in Jerusalem confirmed the basic information and the prime minister's office did not issue a denial; a spokesman for the Russian prime minister said Vladimir Putin was busy that day with his pre-planned schedule, "which did not include a meeting with Netanyahu," but didn't explicitly deny it either. Finally, another statement said Netanyahu was on classified business and that his military secretary issued the cover story to safeguard it.

Israel has a few specific issues with Russia, like the omnipresent Iran. And then there's the sale of advanced Russian military know-how. Only last month, Israeli President Shimon Peres made a state visit to Russia. During a four-hour meeting, President Dmitry Medvedev told Peres that his country viewed Israel as a partner and friend and wanted to upgrade strategic relations.

The same week, the cargo ship Arctic Sea turned up as curiously as it had disappeared two weeks earlier, reporting a peculiar hijacking. Two weeks later, Time magazine suggested that the ship had been carrying Russian missiles to Iran and that Israel's Mossad had been involved in its interception. So maybe foreign intelligence agencies didn't send pirates but one of them gave the Russians a friendly and anonymous tip about the cargo, which was news to the Kremlin and prompted Russia to hijack its own ship, according to this probe. Upgraded strategic relations?

Yesterday, foreign minister Lavrov denied that there were S-300 missiles on the seized vessel.  

In the same meeting, Peres and Medvedev also discussed the sale of weapons and military hardware that could undermine regional balance to countries hostile to Israel. Peres asked that Russia reconsider its policy and emphasized that Israel had concrete proof of Russian weapons being transferred to terrorist organizations by Iran and Syria. Medvedev replied that his country opposed the selling of weapons that could violate the delicate balance in the Middle East and didn't intend to change their policy. 

Why the urgent trip? Maybe it has something to do with the report that the first of the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defense missiles were delivered to Syria this week.

Either way, there seems to be a rash of missiles, missings and misinformation lately and maybe other things behind the curiosities in which Russia misplaces a ship and finds answers (or not) with Israel, who misplaces a prime minister and finds answers (or not) with Russia.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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